Martin Berg at the LA Daily Journal wrote a very good column about the unconscionable idiocy that is going on at the LA County Department of Probation. Since the Daily Journal is hidden behind a firewall, I’ve reprinted the whole thing below.
But first, a little back story.
Until this past February 13—three weeks ago—the LA’s Department of Probation was charging families of lawbreaking kids for their children and/or teenager’s stays in juvenile hall or probation camp—as much as $23.63 dollars for each day in juvie ($750 each month), and $11.94 for each day they spent in camp.
Cool, the hard core among you might be saying. Let’s hold parents responsible for the misdeeds of their offspring.
Yes, well. The one teensy problem about this swell notion is that the majoriy of the parents charged were poor or working class with nothing to spare, so for many, the fees were either deeply burdonsome, or not affordable at all.
Supposedly the parents who couldn’t afford what usually amounted to thousands of dollars in bills could appeal the charges. But for some reason the appeals rarely seemed to work.
As a result, working single mothers were having their wages garnished, families were losing homes or on the verge of doing so, a homeless mother got billed while in a shelter, grandparents on fixed incomes who had taken in children out of love and kindness, were being hounded for high payments.
Moreover probation was spending an astonishing amount of money hiring people to chase after slow-paying parents (and grandparents, and foster parents).
Around a year ago, the Youth Justice Coalition began hearing the fees-for-kid-lock-up horror stories and looked into the matter. What they found was worse than they had imagined. So, together with some other nonprofits like Human Rights Watch, YJC’s Kim McGill went to see Probation Chief Robert Taylor to find out if he would set things right.
Gosh! Bummer! Nothing I can do, said Taylor. ( Or words to that effect.)
(A SIDE NOTE: Since Probation Officer Mary Ridgway’s death I’ve happened to talk to a lot of POs who’ve told me they uniformly hate this parent dunning policy. Just so you know, the rank-and-file should in no way be held responsible for management’s utter stupidity.)
After failing with Taylor, YJC and company next contacted a very, very talented reporter at the LA Times named Molly Hennessy-Fiske, who started looking into the issue. A series of excellent articles resulted, which may be found here and here and here.
With the entrance of the Times on the scene, all of a sudden Chief Taylor found— Mon Dieu! Quelle surprise!—-he could do something after all—especially after the YJC also went to the County Board of Supervisors, who forced Probation’s hand.
Thus on February 13, Chief Taylor declared a moratorium on the payments until things could be sorted out.
Only one problem: a lot of people didn’t know about the moratorium because Probation didn’t bother to tell them. They just kept asking for the back money.
Which brings us to our story. Take it away, Marty.
EARTH TO L.A. COUNTY: GET A CLUE
Leave it to Los Angeles County bureaucrats to turn a well-intentioned state law holding parents financially accountable for their kids’ bad deeds into a vicious attack on beleaguered foster parents.
Vicious, and really stupid.
Vicious because county lawyers have gone after people they should have known didn’t have the ability to pay, sometimes putting liens on their homes when parents couldn’t come up with the money.
Stupid because the county lawyers throw good money after bad, in one case paying an outside law firm $13,000 to try to collect $1,000 from a grandmother who became guardian of her daughter’s four children – even after the county Board of Supervisors had declared a moratorium on the collections.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky raised concerns at Tuesday’s meeting that county officials are spending far more trying to collect than they are taking in. The supervisors have ordered the county’s Probation Department, which oversees the program, to report back next week.
The whole sordid mess has been detailed in a couple of stories by the Los Angeles Times, providing a scorching example of why our region still needs robust and vital local media outlets. The stories pierce the bureaucratic wall of obfuscation and put the pieces together for the public in a way that local governments, lawyers and nonprofit agencies can’t or won’t.
Here’s the background: Since 1983, Welfare and Institutions Code 903 has authorized counties to seek reimbursement from parents for the cost of housing their kids in the county’s detention facilities.
I spoke with Lara Holtzman, managing attorney for Los Angeles-based nonprofit The Alliance for Children’s Rights, who represents the grandmother who was the target of the county’s pound-foolish collection efforts.
Her client, Sally Stokes, who had to take early retirement as an aerospace worker, became legal guardian to her daughter’s four kids after a boyfriend abused them. Her 17-year-old granddaughter was charged with vandalism and making criminal threats, and placed in a detention facility for about a month. She was finally released after Stokes hired a lawyer to represent her.
The county charged Stokes $1,004 for the cost of detention. Stokes said she couldn’t afford it on her $1,630 monthly Social Security check.
Holtzman said the county improperly evaluated Stokes’ ability to pay, including as income money she gets from the government to help care for her three other granddaughters, as well as money she didn’t receive while her granddaughter was in detention. “They need better guidelines on how they determine ability to pay and what counts as income,” Holtzman said.
If someone is receiving any form of public assistance, that should serve as a clue that the person is unable to pay.
Holtzman, a veteran children’s advocate, said the county can be a blindly stubborn legal adversary. “Our experience is that the county continues to fight whether they have a losing case or not,” she said. “They don’t seem to exercise good judgment.”
In Stokes’ case, Holtzman said her agency considered launching a constitutional attack on the law. That’s when the county hired lawyers. She dropped that idea, but the county kept fighting – and the lawyers kept billing.
On Wednesday, Holtzman said a juvenile court referee agreed Stokes shouldn’t have to pay the money because she’s unable to afford it.
Stokes said Wednesday she was happy it was over. “If I had to pay, it would have taken money from the other kids,” she said. “They were trying to take blood from a turnip.”
County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner did not return a phone call seeking comment.
David Steinhart, executive director of the juvenile justice program at San Francisco-based nonprofit Commonweal, said: “This was not intended to penalize poor people or enrich counties. It was intended to keep people from using county detention facilities as a baby-sitting service.”
And here is a shocking fact about county detention facilities: They are not filled with the children of affluent families, who have the resources to find other ways to deal with their troubled kids. They are filled with the children of poverty.
County officials are supposed to evaluate whether the parents can afford to pay those costs before they try to collect. “There are serious questions about whether those limits [on counties collecting from those who can’t afford to pay] are being honored,” Steinhart said.
Steinhart acknowledged the grim economic realities of local governments in the midst of economic crisis. “Counties are strapped, no doubt,” he said. “But the solution is not to push the tab to poor people who don’t have the ability to pay. It’s patently absurd to be trying to collect from foster parents who are inadequately reimbursed for the costs of foster care in the first place.”
It’s also hardly the first time questions have been raised about the county’s suspect supervision of the outside lawyers it hires. Back in October 2007, Daily Journal staff writer Robert Iafolla recounted the supervisors’ frustrated effort to get the County Counsel’s Office to rein in spending on outside lawyers, after the county counsel fired its highly effective litigation cost manager.
Most of us have gotten the message – the bubble has burst. The city is broke, the county is broke, the whole world is broke. But even if we had money, this would be a stupid way to use it.
By the way, McGill and YJC have scheduled a meeting on the moratorium at the Youth Justice Coalition headquarters, 1137 E. Redondo Blvd., at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 7.
Photo of Luis Salazar and his mother from YJC